Time Management Tips for Research and Academic Writing

You may have heard the joke, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ The punchline, ‘One bite at a time’, is useful in the context of discussing a mammoth research task: a thesis. Whether you prefer the elephant metaphor (or perhaps the notion of conquering your own personal Everest), a thesis is a huge undertaking.

In order to complete your thesis, time management skills are necessary. American motivational speaker Zig Ziglar suggests ‘Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days’. So, here are our top time management tips to help you break down that elephant-sized thesis into manageable bite-sized chunks.

Allocate Regular Time

No one wakes up one morning with the spontaneous ability to run a marathon. Similarly, you need to consider writing your thesis as a training exercise. Daily (or regular) training is more important than a once-per-week binge.

Ascertain the most productive time of the day for you. Dedicate a set amount of time to reading and taking notes. Turn off your phone, log out of your social media accounts and refrain from checking email. As often as you are able, give yourself the earmarked time without interruption.

Additionally, it is so important that you allocate guilt-free time away from your thesis and research. Tony Schwartz (2010), writing for the Harvard Business Review, says ‘human beings perform best and are most productive when they alternate between periods of intense focus and intermittent renewal’.

Map Out the Big Picture

In addition to working towards daily goals, loosely set targets for stages of your thesis. This is necessary to ensure you effectively progress through these stages. A yearly wall calendar or planner is useful for mapping this out and providing a visual reminder.

For an Honours Education thesis completed over one year, a student dedicated the first three months to research, writing the Literature Review and Methodology chapters, organising the field work and honing her research aims. The next three months she dedicated exclusively to field work. She spent three months after that analysing her data sets and writing her Introduction and Findings chapters. Having completed this, for the next two months the researcher returned to the literature to write her Discussion and Conclusion chapters. Because she didn’t leave all the writing to the end, she had a month to edit and redraft her thesis.

Being aware of the big picture is necessary to maintain focus; it prevents you from getting bogged down in the daily grind.

Be Held Accountable

Being held accountable is crucial to success! The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘accountable’ as being ‘responsible to a person, for an act’.

Whether it’s your supervisor or a fellow student, find someone with whom you can be completely honest and who will know if you’re being dishonest about the progress of your thesis. Ensure you share your research time line with your accountability buddy.

While it’s important for this person to be affirmative and encouraging, you also want to know they can give you a nudge in the right direction if you’re lacking motivation. It will be useful if they are an expert in the field, but this is not strictly necessary. The most important thing is that you can meet with them regularly.

Learn About Yourself

The key to completing a thesis is to draw on your strengths and learn how to navigate your weaknesses.

Find out when and where you work most productively. If ‘to do’ lists overwhelm you, consider making a priority list instead. (A priority list is a list of three to five things that must be completed today.) Can you read comfortably off a computer screen? If not, print journal articles and bind them together.

Writing a thesis can be all-consuming. You live and breathe your research. Keep a notebook by your bed for those middle-of-the-night inspirations. Designate a physical space (in your home and/or office) for keeping your thesis together, so it doesn’t feel like the thesis is creeping into all areas of your life.

Good luck as you begin to climb your Everest! Remember the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, ‘A goal without a plan is just a wish’.

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